Thursday, July 10, 2008

I'm Back, Sort of...

So here I am again, after a hiatus of a good month or so, during which I lost all ten of my regular readers. For a while, the day job simply demanded too much of my time; after that I just kind of hit the wall. But there was something else, too.

With the death of George Carlin a couple of weeks ago, I was reminded of one of his less celebrated comments. I think it came from one of his books. He said (and I'm taking this from memory, so it may not be exactly right), "Whenever I hear someone propose a political solution to a problem, I know I am not dealing with a serious person."

Obviously, I don't entirely agree with Carlin. I teach political science, so it wouldn't make much sense for me to argue that politics is meaningless. Some problems demand political solutions; I suspect that even George understood this.

But I think Carlin was making a deeper point, one with which I do agree: people who expect politicians to rescue us from ourselves are almost certain to be disappointed. I say this not as some sort of libertarian rant, but as a simple statement of truth. It's not that we don't need government, because we do. Indeed, we need more government than we have now. The current economic and social meltdown in health care, environmental degradation, and rapacious capitalism cries out for greater regulation in any number of areas. If the past quarter century has taught us anything, it is the simple fact that unregulated or barely regulated markets will never lead us to peace and prosperity, much less justice and human decency.

Rather, my point is that politics will always be a blunt instrument and politicians will always be unreliable heroes. Take Barack Obama, for example. His recent desperate, amateurish lurch toward the center has been a keen disappointment to those lefty bloggers who honestly thought that he was something other than a hyper-ambitious politician willing to do whatever it takes to satisfy his burning need for power and personal validation. This, of course, is only a dress rehearsal for the disappointments to come should Obama win the presidency in four months. (In this sense, of course, John McCain is not one bit better. He now embraces nearly everything he once rejected, groveling before the same vicious theocrats and scorched-earth reactionaries who were once willing to destroy him and slander his family. It is difficult for those who don't burn with the single-minded ambition of a top-tier presidential candidate to understand that nothing--issues, principles, or even basic personal integrity--matters more than the quest.)

In my lifetime, I have seen politics and politicians do far more harm than good. And that's not just because the Oval Office has been filled mostly with Republicans for the past two generations. The Democrats may have done less harm, but they also accomplished very little of lasting merit. Seriously, what do we have to show for twelve years of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton? Camp David, I guess, and maybe a decent economic run during the 1990s.

This is not to say that politics doesn't matter. The past eight years have certainly shown us that politicians, willing to lie, ignore the law, and place lockstep party support over all other principles, can overwhelm and render moot James Madison's brilliant constitutional design. Today, yet another White House alumnus brazenly defied a congressional subpoena, knowing that nothing bad would happen to him as a result. Yesterday, a craven Congress once again gave a power-mad administration still more power to intrude on the lives of innocent Americans and overturn decades of civil liberties. Politics retains the ability to visit enormous harm on people at home and abroad. Perhaps the best we can hope for in any election is to limit the damage that our ballots can wreak.

Sure, there have been some rare shining moments of progress. But even these exceptions prove the general futility of hoping for political solutions. It took the assassination of a president to move Congress, decades too late, to extend basic rights to its African American citizens. It took a complete economic meltdown to give Franklin Roosevelt the tools to trasform American society. And even then, much of his success depended on the onset of a cataclysmic world war.

The most pressing concern of the moment is health care. Our system doesn't work, is ridiculously expensive, makes American industry less competitive, and--worst of all--causes, both directly and indirectly, the untimely deaths of thousands of Americans. Yet, even Hillary Clinton's timid, inadequate work toward a solution in 1993 was shot down by a powerful industry and its political enablers who easily convinced an ignorant nation that they already had the best health care system in the world, even as families were being ruined by the sort of catastrophic illnesses that would never force Canadians or Britons into the poorhouse.

Anyway, all of this makes it a little depressing to blog about the 2008 presidential election. If we choose Door Number 1, we get four more years of dangerous and destructive foreign entanglements, four more years of tax cuts for the wealthy and trickle-down misery for everyone else, and, with the likely forthcoming changes at the Supreme Court, twenty years of backsliding toward unchecked police power and unshackled corporate dominance. If we choose Door Number 2, we get an untested rookie politician, obsessed with re-election from Day 1, who, when not triangulating on a Clintonesque scale, will find himself hamstrung by the take-no-prisoners tactics of a fanatical minority and the cowardly careerism of a majority that has already internalized an unwillingness to stand up to bullies. Oh, and there is no Door Number 3.

I'll choose Door Number 2, of course, but without a lot of enthusiasm.

In the meantime, forgive me if my blogging is sporadic and if I talk less about the election than I have previously.

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